Henry Hey: Learning From The Stranger Things

Mike Jacobs By

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AAJ: There was a mixed reaction from the critics about Lazarus. Did you find the audience reaction any different?

HH: It's such a strange and artsy piece. When it premiered in New York people didn't know what to think of it at times. It's very artistic and I think that's exactly how David wanted it to be. When it played in New York, it played at the New York Theater Workshop and there were some subscription theater-goers that normally would never have gone to see a play like Lazarus. We had an after-show talk every two weeks for subscription-goers. It was an open panel and people could ask questions. I remember an elderly gentleman saying, "I don't understand, it made me angry. I don't get it." And I said, "Frankly, I've been working on this for a year and there are parts that I don't completely understand but I think that's OK." There should be some questions. It's kind of like the gift that keeps on giving. I think what's great about David Bowie's work, and a lot of great art, is that it can have multiple meanings for things and unanswered questions. You know, stuff that makes you think rather than have it be really straightforward. You can look at the lyrics and say, "What exactly does that lyric mean? It could mean this, it could mean that." I think that's very parallel to the way that Bowie and the playwright Enda Walsh wanted that work to be. So yeah, I think the play had some people upset because they didn't understand it. There were also some Bowie fans who said, "This isn't Bowie!" In fact, that is exactly what he wanted. He wanted the music to serve the play, not the other way around.

AAJ: Is that tough, when something is "your baby" too, to field that kind of reaction?

HH: Yeah but I think that's just how it goes with art, if you work really hard on something and put your stamp on it and you commit. I mean unless you're objective is to create the most popular piece of music for the mass market, you are going to find that people are divided. And if they are strongly divided, then maybe you've created something that, at least, is committed -that takes a stance. I think that's a much stronger way to be than being neither here nor there.

AAJ: So back to our timeline. When did you decide to start doing Rudder full time?

HH: After playing with Rod for a while and I got the sense (pause)... I think it's important to have a sense of where your employer's head is at and I got the very real sense that Rod was getting tired of doing the standards. He always gave himself to them but he started to include less of them [in the set] and at soundcheck he was less enthusiastic about them. I could see the writing on the wall. The entire time I was playing with Rod, he also had Chuck Kentis who had been Rod's long-time musical director before I started and was still the MD of the rock side of the show. I did play on both [standard and rock] sides of the show but would play piano and only a couple of parts [on the rock side]. Chuck would play all of the other parts and organ, he just played pretty much everything. Then we finished up the tour and Rod was starting to promote his new record Soulbook (Sony Legacy, 2009). The tour for that wasn't till the Spring and then I get this call. It's Chuck and he says "Hey man..." and I could tell right away. He said, "Yeah, Rod's gonna make a change" and basically he eliminated my chair. They hired somebody on who was utility -who played keyboards and guitar. So I thought, "Well, this is it, it's time for me."

I don't think you should stay on a gig like that for very long anyway. It's great if that's what you want but for me it wasn't where I ultimately wanted to be. So as soon as that happened, I decided to go full steam ahead with Rudder.

So we had been playing a bit and I called Tim [Lefebvre] and said' "Let's make this record and let's get out there on the road and do this thing." So we did. We basically fast-tracked all that stuff and went after it.

AAJ: Rudder was certainly a band that sounded like nothing else that was out at the time.

HH: Well, thank you.

AAJ: Also though, it was one of a number of groups that represented the resurgence of the band in jazz. In the '90's, jazz seemed to be pretty devoid of actual bands. You saw a lot of great players surrounded by a nebula of other great players and everyone one would play on each other's solo albums. It was great for what it was but in the 2000's there were actual bands coming up in jazz again—like Nik Bärtsch's Ronin, Kneebody, Snarky Puppy and Rudder. They really reminded what groups that played together and stayed together could accomplish that collections of individual musicians, even great ones, couldn't.

HH: Well yeah, no question, a band is capable of reaching much deeper than a collection of hired guns, even if the hired guns have played together a bunch. And you're absolutely right, there was a time in the '90s when you could get out your checkbook and hire famous sidemen and it would make a difference in your profile and your sales. Obviously sales started going away, so that didn't matter anymore, and you're weren't going to take those people on the road, so it's probably a natural evolution that brought that to a close. People still hire famous sidemen but it's not nearly like what it was. I think it makes for a better live band to have musicians who are regulars. I know I enjoy playing music much more with musicians that I have a long communion with. It's great to have that relationship where you're practically reading each other's minds.

AAJ: And I imagine the material you can write when you have a bonafide band can be much more integrated. I mean, I'm sure a lot of the '90s thing was logistically driven -people didn't get paid to rehearse so it was more practical to just hand out the charts, especially to a great player. But knowing each other and hanging together, you can write more complicated arrangements and people will actually know the music well enough to really make it breathe.

HH: Even more than that, you can write that kind of stuff and get people to get deep into the concept of it—the feeling, the sound of it. The way that one rock band sounds different playing the blues from another rock band—because of the concept. They've honed that thing, you know? You can get to that place much more deeply with a band of colleagues that plays together all the time.

AAJ: So Rudder was your band of colleagues?

HH: It absolutely was. We felt it was something that if we took away one part, it wouldn't be the same. We did have one tour where [drummer] Jeremy Stacey played with us for some dates and Jeremy's awesome. He's a great musician, he's hilarious and one of the great rock drummers with a jazz background. He was great with us but the band sounded different than it did with Keith.

AAJ: It's hard to imagine that band without Carlock.

HH: The music was written with Keith in mind so... That sound of the band was created with the four of us, together. You take one of us away, it changes that sound.

AAJ: So what ultimately happened with Rudder?

HH: Well even while we were doing Rudder we were all still doing other things. At the time, Keith was playing with Sting, John Mayer and Steely Dan. Tim was playing with Uri Caine and a bunch of other folks. I was in between gigs and I grabbed the gig with George Michael. Eventually it got to the point where it was just too hard to keep Rudder going. Keith was starting a family, Tim had just gotten the gig with Tedeschi Trucks Band and Chris [Cheek] was increasingly busy with jazz projects, especially in Spain. Again, if a band isn't active, it doesn't exist. You're only around as much as the fading memory of your last gig. Especially now in the age of look-here, look-there social media.

So ultimately, we called it. I guess if anybody called it, I called it because I feel like I was the one who pushed it forward. It was possible and then it seemed like it was just less and less possible.

At the time, when Rudder was kind of on its last legs, I had already known Michael League. Rudder had played double-headers with Snarky [Puppy], when they were still just a Texas band. Mike and I had become friends and I think I had convinced Mike to move to New York by then. So I said [to Mike], "Let's start a project." This was before Snarky had any Grammys or anything. At the time Mike was saying, " Man, it would be great to have a small band" and "It's really challenging keeping all these musicians in line..." And I said, " Yeah, I'm tired of working in a band where nobody's available" etcetera, etcetera, so we started FORQ together.

We started as just a project. He said he had a great drummer in Dallas, Jason “JT” Thomas, and I asked [guitarist] Adam Rogers, who I played with in Bill Evans band. That was the first iteration of FORQ and we just played some gigs at the 55 Bar. Then we did a few more and said, "Let's make a record of this" and we were off and running.

AAJ: Has Jason JT Thomas always been on drums?

HH: Yes, he's always been on drums. Jason is a rare musician. I always count my blessings with drummers because I've gotten to play with so many great ones. I love drums and percussion and almost became a drummer but my parents said no because they were too loud. (laughs) Yeah, but Jason is so much more than just a drummer, he's a complete musician. I've seen him play in many situations and his musicality is second to none. You know you have a great musician when they have the ability to play anything they want, but choose not to because it's not appropriate.

AAJ:You've also found a very interesting foil in Chris McQueen.*

* (Note: McQueen replaced Adam Rogers in FORQ after the first album.)

HH: I love working with Chris McQueen. He's a great writer, composer and conceptualist. He's super, super musical and he's also very positive, which shouldn't be discounted. We were getting ready for this record [Four] and I was starting to feel like I didn't have anything that I felt great about composition-wise. And for me, if we don't have the tunes, we might as well just cancel it. Chris was saying he had a couple tunes but wasn't sure and I said, "Fuck it, I'm getting on a plane and coming to Austin." So I flew down there, camped in their spare bedroom and Chris and I wrote for two days. I'd get my computer out and say, " I have this start. Is it crap? should I throw it in the trash?" I think anybody who spends time composing has hundreds of pieces of paper on the floor -or the virtual floor that they've decided are shit. You know, "This sucks, that sucks, I suck... I can't do anything"—that's where I was and where Chris was at with his stuff. So I'd play something for him and he's like, "No, I think it's good. Maybe we can do this [with it]." And I was the same with his tunes. We sort of propped each other up and helped each other finish these songs. It was a super productive and positive couple of days and probably half of the record came out of those two days.



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